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Friday, 12 October 2018

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop again takes up the cudgels for MY THESIS FILM (Erik Anderson, Canada, 2016-18)

MY THESIS FILM: a thesis film by Erik Anderson (Canada, 2018)

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about the best student film I’ve ever seen. Click here for the earlier note
Film students: Erik Anderson, Juan Arce, Franco Nguyen
The Sydney Film Festival had sent me a streaming link to the blithely-titled, three-hour My Thesis Film: a thesis film by Erik Anderson - a student at York University, Toronto. As a member of the Film Advisory Panel for the Sydney Festival, I gave the film the strongest recommendation I could muster. 

It seemed to me Erik Anderson’s film was the perfect reason I was on the panel. After 27 years in film school education viewing nearly 800 student films, if I couldn’t pick a talented and accomplished student film, then who else was better qualified?

There was no reaction at all from the programmers at the Sydney Film Festival. None. And during a year when the Festival had a “Focus on Canada”. There was no evidence anyone else at the Festival had bothered to watch the film. So, I quit the Advisory Panel.

As it turned out, I was the one out-of-step. No-one in Canada or anywhere else in the world was interested either. In fact, Anderson’s film, now extended to 4 hours, only had its public premiere screening last month at the Montreal World Film Festival - a festival, it seems, lucky to still be alive. It won the Norman McLaren Award for Best Student Film. 

The Toronto International Film Festival, apparently a de facto arbiter of future film production support in Canada, wouldn’t include My Thesis Film in its main program. However, earlier this month, the Festival did give it a one-off screening in their on-going cinematheque program Lightbox.

So, what’s the problem? Certainly not the film’s technical qualities. I’d challenge anyone to point to a long-form student film that is better cast, acted or written. Can’t be the length either. Film Festivals everywhere regularly screen three-hour films. 

No, it’s the content.

The uncompromising Erik Anderson tackles a series of issues that cause extreme discomfort to liberal-leaning Festival programmers and their liberal-leaning audiences.

His approach isn’t from the political right, however. He’s more of a left-leaning reformist with a desire to open dialogue on hot issues and question some of more contentious political correctness of the day. 

He challenges university manifestations of gender politics, “trigger warnings”, students being “offended” by ideas, victimhood, rewriting history and the increasing omnipotence of identity politics.

If that’s not enough, he questions cultural and gender bias in Film Festival programming. And, just to make sure he has bitten off the last hand that could possibly feed him, he rails against the film funding gate-keepers and the cronies who are consistently supported by the Canada film assistance program - no matter how poor their recent track records have been.

It’s scintillating stuff. Withering, intellectually penetrating, scathing, destructive. And breathtaking in its take-no-prisoners approach to sucking up to no-one. Thanks very much, but if you’re not prepared to select or fund my films on merit, then you can go and get stuffed.

And I’ll go out and make a 4-hour film about it.

It’s worth noting the similarities between the Canadian and Australian film industries here. On the Toronto Film Festival Lightbox screening of My Thesis Film, David Davidson writes in the Toronto Film Review

“There's a truism in Canadian cinema which is … it's surprising it even exists. Just look at some of its major figures like Don Shebib, Joyce Wieland or even Patricia Rozema and you'd see that sometime throughout their career, and with good reason … they've lamented the sad state of production, distribution and even reception in this country. However much cultural prestige they've been conferred, I would posit that all Canadian filmmakers are 'orphans' of a national media industry that was never that interested in fostering a domestic film industry with the goals of cultural expression or regional specificity. Instead you keep hearing about the creation of 'global' oriented 'content', while screen incentives keep being directed towards runaway American productions.

And if you've heard as many horror stories as I have from film production students about the difficulties they've encountered each step of their way to make their work and get it seen then you would understand how even just the completion of a project and then getting only one public projection could be seen as a success… 

A further manifestation of Anderson’s take-no-prisoners approach was his reaction to the lack of interest (i.e. none) in his film. Others might hastily cut their film and exorcise some of the ‘alienating’ material. Instead, Anderson has added another 60 minutes to his three-hour opus, making it longer than Lawrence of ArabiaBen-HurSpartacusGiant and The Ten Commandments.
The new material includes the film he wasn’t allowed to make – a filmed version of Book 1 of Plato’s Republic. When he pitched the idea to faculty and students he was told it was “antiquated”. Erik is heard muttering “It comes from antiquity”. When told it was “old, white and male” and he should cast a woman as Socrates and women as the other Greek philosophers, it was clear he wouldn’t get funded. Anderson was the only student not to receive funding for his thesis film.
So, now he’s included the Plato film he originally proposed (40mins) as an “Epilogue as Prologue” at the start of My Thesis Film and extended the remainder to a 190-minute diatribe against the absence of meritocracy in Film Festivals and Film Production financing.
Eighteen months ago, I thought the Sydney Film Festival:
“…may just have ignored the greatest filmmaking talent to emerge from Canada since Xavier Dolan.”
I also wrote of My Thesis Film:
“Here’s a film you won’t see at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
In fact, you may never see it, which is kind of what the film is about”.
Nothing has changed.     
Erik Anderson

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